Kenneth J. Cooper: Revising the Black Combat Record in the Civil War





[Kenneth J. Cooper, a Pulitzer Prize-winning reporter, is a freelance journalist based in Boston.]

Though it has the movie Glory and an exquisite memorial on Boston Common, the Massachusetts 54th regiment does not have Civil War history on its side....

Black regiments from three other states—Louisiana, South Carolina and Kansas—have stronger claims to being the first organized. The 1st Kansas Colored Infantry, military historians seem to agree, engaged the enemy on the battlefield before any other black unit....

How did this important landmark in the nation’s history—not just black history—get misplaced by such a wide mark? Blame it on the Hollywood hype and the PBS equivalent, at least in contemporary times. Although its futile charge into the blasting canons of Fort Wagner, S.C., does make for a better story than the earlier black units, the 54th regiment didn’t have to be misrepresented as the first to capture its heroism....

The National Parks Service, which maintains any number of Civil War monuments and battlefields, puts it this way: “It may be interesting to mention that the 54th Massachusetts regiment, celebrated for its valiant charge at Fort Wagner, South Carolina, was not the first African-American unit to fight in the Union Army. While the 54th was organized in 1863, other units of African-American soldiers were formed in Kansas, South Carolina and Louisiana as early as 1862.”

The 1st Louisiana Native Guards, a state militia, already existed when the Civil War started in April 1861, but Confederates in New Orleans quickly disbanded the black regiment. When New Orleans fell into Northern hands, Union commanders managed to reconstitute the unit, which on Sept. 27, 1862, received official recognition from the Union Army. The Massachusetts 54th was not mustered until three months later in January 1863.

In May of the previous year, Union commanders assembled the 1st South Carolina Volunteers (African Descent), on which the National Parks Service confers the distinction of being “the first such Union Army regiment.” It didn’t stay together long in its initial form. One reason was that runaway or “contraband” slaves recoiled at being gang-pressed into service. The 1st South Carolina disbanded in early August 1862, according to the parks service....

Glory makes a vague, disparaging reference to what could be the 1st South Carolina in an early scene, and later depicts a similar “contraband” unit joining the Massachusetts 54th on a military mission in a Georgia town.

The Kansas regiment was organized in August 1862, by order of the state’s governor. Many of the troops were escaped slaves from Missouri or Indian Territory (Oklahoma). Without federal recognition, which did not come until the next year, they skirmished with Confederate guerillas in October 1862 at Island Mound in western Missouri. As battles go, the engagement was not glorious—no major military objective was at stake. But once it was over, at least eight members of the 1st Kansas had been killed in action....

Glory and The Civil War may have just reinforced historical biases. Though the Louisiana, South Carolina and Kansas regiments were all functioning months earlier, the Massachusetts 54th was accorded a larger place in history because of the star power of advocates like Frederick Douglass, the prominent news coverage in the eastern press and the military significance of Fort Wagner, which protected Charleston, S.C.
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